Women populate the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, and the speaking parts he gives them are often more elaborate than in the sources he draws upon. Did he intend female characters to sound differently than do the narrators who quote them? Assuming his poetry was recited in public, how could the variation of its voices have influenced the meanings it created? My paper addresses these questions by considering several key passages from Chaucer’s writings. Its focus on literary texts as performable scripts fits the IMC theme by highlighting the need to supplement conceptual interpretation with close attention to the material qualities of sound, however evanescent they may be.
In Martianus Capella’s influential Latin work, The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, there is a host of female personifications related to the intellect, whether that be the central wisdom-figure of Philology, or the personified Seven Liberal Arts who serve as bridesmaids at her wedding to the god Mercury. Chaucer highlights his reading of Martianus Capella’s 5th-century work in both The House of Fame and ‘The Merchant’s Tale’. In both cases, Chaucer demonstrates an awareness that the central allegory of Capella’s work represents the marrying of wisdom and eloquence. In The House of Fame,Chaucer responds to Martianus Capella in three ways: (1) Borrowing the trappings of the female allegorical personification tradition (2) Replacing the female astral ascender with a male one (3) Using the subtext of Capella’s marriage of Philology (wisdom) and Mercury (eloquence) as a way to explore the poetic expression of knowledge through the highly gendered lens of romantic love. In exploring the scarcely-studied subject of Martianus Capella’s influence on Chaucer, this paper will ask such questions as: How does Chaucer’s responsiveness to the gendered dynamics of Capella’s allegory help us to understand Chaucer – and his contemporaries’ – attitudes towards poetry and learning as masculine pursuits? Is it possible to view either learning or poetry as uniquely masculine pursuits when they occur, in Chaucer and other late medieval literature, within a literary tradition so abundant with feminine personifications and marital allegories? What might this tell us about the performance of gender and the expression of knowledge in Chaucer’s oeuvre?
While the meta-literary elements in Chaucer’s works have been examined in some depth, what the book collectively signifies remains under-examined. A review of the (over 80) times books are mentioned reveals several points about the material and symbolic significance of books where gender is concerned. First, books provide a source of power or authority towards men. When men hold books, books are a source of both social and intellectual power over others, as in the ‘Man of Law’s Tale’ and the Wife of Bath’s prologue. When a male speaker directly addresses women reading, the characterizations are often stereotypes such as with the Physician or the Nun’s Priest. Second, there are instances in which women have the power of books when they are masculinized, as exemplified by Dame Prudence. Lastly, when women possess physical books, the books are both symbols of oppression and the means of gaining agency, such as Criseyde and the Wife of Bath.